Addison — I’ve decided to continue contemplating the 5W’s in this series, after sort of stumbling into my first question, which I contemplated in twice in two different ways: “where,” both where I’m from and where I’m going, as my life currently is in-between those two places.
That liminal space is uncomfortable, but it’s fitting for a theatre artist; we traffic in the ephemeral, temporary, in-between places. We travel from theatre to theatre, sometimes city to city, creating art that soon will disappear. For the past 20 years, each play I’ve made has lasted for at the longest a few months. I’ve worked on some of them for a couple of years, but then they close and they’re just a memory. Yet now I find myself transferring those ideas and skills into something that is supposed to last, hopefully long past myself. It’s a different foundation one lays when they commit to taking on a long-term project, a project that has the potential to ring even more profoundly than one play (although some plays influence generations to come). This is all to say that a theatre company is a very specific and different artistic project to approach.
Which ultimately has led me to the question: what is a theatre company anyway?
I’ll start with what it’s not. A theatre company is not a “where,” in that it is not a building. Just as a house isn’t a home, a theatre company isn’t a theatre. It may not seem like that, and since the structure, the company, and the art-form itself all have the same name, it’s easily confused.
So I’ll get specific. Our theatre company is called WaterTower Theatre, in reference to the structure to which we sit adjacent in Addison. That might make it seem as though our theatre is the building, but our present home is in a building we don’t own, it has its own name: the Addison Theatre Centre. We love this theater, we love working there, it is a great home for our company, but even if we owned it? A theatre company is about the work, not the structure itself.
So, if a theatre isn’t a building, what is it? I’ve been pondering this, and am working with an idea right now that a theatre company is a water tower, metaphorically. I looked up “water tower” on Wikipedia and it says that a water tower is, “an elevated structure supporting a water tank sufficient to pressurize a water supply system for the distribution of potable water.” Somehow, this seemed also to be a good definition for a theatre. I’ll explain:
The arts are essential for a civilized society. Creative experiences are not just ways to escape or passively “be entertained”; but that the arts nourish our creative souls by helping us contemplate the world, or imagine it differently, while bringing people together over the pains and joys of being human. This has been true for thousands of years, but seems even more important now, in our fast-moving contemporary world. When else do we turn off our technology, sit in groups of people who are different than us to think about humanity? To get to suspend our disbelief (which we cling tightly to these days) and lose ourselves in a story that unfolds live before us? And doesn’t it leave an imprint on both audiences and artists, to take this time to see the world in such a creative way? The shared experience of audiences and actors is unique and special to the theatre, and one as metaphorically quenching as water.
In my metaphor of the theatre as water tower, the theatre company is the structure “supporting the water tank.” Our job as a theatre is to support the art and artists—actors, singers, playwrights, musicians, designers, directors, choreographers, theatre-creators of all kind—so that our audiences can receive water (art) that is pure. The pure, authentic visions and creations of our artists, so they can put their hearts and souls and dreams and hopes out into the world. The pure vulnerability of our performers so they can do their best, fearless work each performance. This pure art is then delivered to an audience who is thirsty for the potential transcendence of the theatrical experience.
Every community needs a water tower. There’s something beautifully pedestrian about what this image evokes, the spherically simple tower of our suburban location that echoes water towers all over our nation and world. And just as I love to have a Fiji or a Perrier sometimes (in this metaphor that’s a touring Broadway show), it’s more important, if not essential, to have our own professional-level local theatres that create work that speaks to and are crucial to their communities.
The theatre is not just a structure, or a staff, or an artistic director. I am simply a steward of something far bigger than I am: of a theatre company. So, what is a theatre company, anyway? A theatre company is that which creates supportive circumstances for relevant artists to do their collaborative, creative work while facilitating circumstances for the community to engage with that artistic work. We deliver that theatrical art to our community, just as the water tower eventually delivers water to their town. To support the art/artists that create work, and connect that work with an audience: that is what a theatre company does.
Theatre is a special and unique art form: you can’t take it home, you can’t watch it again, there’s no rewind button, and there’s no re-reading that last chapter. No matter what the script says, what the director choreographs, what the designers create, the theatre only truly exists in the moment of performance and is unique to the chemistry of actors and audience on a given night. And sure, that happens in a theater, but it wouldn’t happen without a theatre company.
The when, where, who, and sometimes even the why might change—but the what remains. And while other companies might think of themselves differently, I like to think of us as being a water tower.
» Joanie Schultz was named Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre in December. After she directs the premiere of Madhuri Shekar's Queen at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in April, she will move here with her husband, opera conductor Francesco Milioto. She'll select the 2017-18 season for WaterTower, which will be announced in late April.
» Hear an extensive interview with her on the current episode of the Little Big Scene Podcast, here.
» An Artistic Director Prepares will run on the last Friday of the month in TheaterJones.